TOOLBOX: Database May Reveal an Oil Spill Near You

June 30, 2010

While the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf is catastrophic in scale, there are many smaller oil spills in other waters around the country — some of which may possibly be a story in your media market. They are not hard to find.

A key tool is the database kept by the National Response Center. Run by the US Coast Guard, the NRC was set up under a number of environmental laws, including the 1980 Superfund law (CERCLA), the 1972 Clean Water Act, the 1975 Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, and the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. It acts as a single clearinghouse for reports on many different kinds of spills and other incidents, and its legal mandates have expanded over the years. Most significant oil spills have to be reported to the NRC, whether or not they occur in coastal waters.

Every spill report coming in to the NRC goes into a database which is, for the most part, publicly accessible. Exploring it may turn up a story you want to pursue.

You can query the database online, or download it for use in your own computer-assisted reporting project. You might, for example, ask for records on all oil spills in your state during the last two years. Or you could ask for all the incidents in which the company suspected of being responsible was BP. Or you could ask for incidents in a given area involving release of some other substance — such as hydrogen sulfide, a gas that often accompanies oil and gas drilling. You could ask for all spills caused by a hurricane in Louisiana and Alabama in the week after Katrina in 2005. The possibilities are many, and most of the time limited only by your ability to come up with probing questions.

Once you have raw incident data, however, there is no substitute for verifying it with shoe-leather reporting. The database contains raw spill reports which have not all been verified. There is some time lag between the time a report is made and the time it appears in the database. Some information in the database may be kept from the public. Some significant incidents may not have been reported.

Still, it is the most comprehensive national data overview available, and a good starting point for many stories you and your audience may have overlooked — such as the cumulative effect of many ongoing small spills in enclosed harbors and estuaries.

Additional pertinent info is online in the Coast Guard's Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database. The Center for Public Integrity offers some advice for using it.